Shocked! Shocked! by gambling that sparks electroshocking horses
Cheating methods, regulations, & some statistics have changed since this article was first posted in June 1999, but the monetary motivations & horse industry attitudes have not.
HOUSTON, LITTLE ROCK ––All the money in breeding race or show horses is gambling money.
Figure that out, and it is no surprise that jockey Billy Patin allegedly used an electrical shocking device to boot the horse Valhol home in the April 10, 1999 Arkansas Derby, beating 30-to-1 odds.
Patin, 36, appeared briefly to have won his first big race in 20 years of competition.
Then an Oaklawn Park worker found a shocking device on the track near the finish. A video replay showed Patin dropping a black object at about that point.
Patin got the boot
On May 4, 1999, the Arkansas Racing Commission redistributed the Arkansas Derby purse, fined Patin $2,500, and suspended him through the balance of 1999. This was the maximum penalty the Arkansas Racing Commission could impose.
Patin was also suspended from all other racing sanctioned by the Association of Racing Commissioners International. The Arkansas Racing Commission recommended that the Association of Racing Commissioners International extend the suspension to May 5, 2004.
Patin, claiming innocence, said he would appeal. Another jockey rode Valhol to a 15th place finish in the 19-horse Kentucky Derby.
Horse racing, rodeo, & bull riding
The Association of Racing Commissioners International has recorded 242 race horse shocking incidents since 1974; 42 since 1990. The devices used are similar, sometimes identical, to those Steve Hindi and other Showing Animals Respect & Kindness volunteers have videotaped in use to goad bulls as they gallop from the chutes in rodeo bull riding competition.
The the Association of Racing Commissioners International, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, and the International Pro Rodeo Association all ban the use of electrical shock to make animals perform. Besides being cruel to the animals, shocking can make their behavior unpredictably dangerous.
Shocks can also be used to rig a competition, since the horse who spurts toward the finish or bull who bucks more vigorously can significantly enhance a rider s chance of victory.
Horse racing more honest than rodeo
But the public bets on horse racing. Only the riders and stock contractors have a monetary stake in the outcome of rodeo.
That makes horse racing perversely more honest, in that chicanery though seemingly ubiquitous, is more often exposed. Examples are made of offenders who get caught, though it is anyone’s guess as to how much cheating occurs undetected.
Horse racing profits depend ultimately on bettors believing that they are not being systematically cheated, even as they are induced to bet repeatedly on losers.
Thus in 1997 the Illinois Racing Board permanently suspended jockey Patrick Boxie for allegedly possessing and conspiring to use an electrical shocking device at Fairmount Park, near Chicago.
The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and International Pro Rodeo Association, by contrast, have yet to announce any penalty against any of the many users of shocking devices repeatedly caught in the act at rodeos.
To maintain public confidence, horse racing has an elaborate system of quasi-independent oversight, reinforced by the possibility that especially egregious offenders may be charged with criminal fraud. Rodeo is self-policing, as are most forms of non-racing horse competition.
Cobs & the mob
As well as penalizing cheaters, when caught, U.S. horse racing authorities make a show of excluding elements of known dubious background.
Anyone can be a rodeo cowboy or stock contractor, but in February 1999 would-be race track owners Lang Wilby, Paul Savoie, and Tambra Emmett withdrew their application to reopen the Green Mountain Raceway in Pownal, Vermont, ostensibly because they were required to make more than $2 million in public safety improvements, after spending $300,000 to convert the former greyhound track back to the original horse racing configuration.
The Vermont State Police, however, had recently questioned Emmett about her father-in-law, Albert “Albo” Vitali Sr., 74, reputedly part of the Patriarcha crime family since 1963, when his name surfaced at a U.S. Senate hearing as an alleged leader of traffic in stolen goods.
Vitali reportedly also has a criminal record for illegal bookmaking, and selling counterfeit coins, and at least once posted bail for the late Raymond L.S. Patriarcha, reputed godfather of the family.
“When I married my husband, I didn’t marry my father-in-law,” Emmett objected.
But U.S. horse racing regulators don’t want any taint of the abuses associated with reputed organized crime influence within traditional palio horse racing in Italy.
Palio races are run over cobblestoned city streets. They are dangerous: the Tuscany palio alone has resulted in 38 horse deaths since 1975.
Chicanery makes palio racing even more dangerous. Incidents in 1997 and 1998 included at least two thefts of well-regarded horses, the substitution of an English thoroughbred in dyed disguise for a local horse, and in apparent retaliation or warning, the shooting of three horses belonging to Sardinian breeder Mario Demontis.
The tongues of two were cut out; the head of the third was impaled on a fence.
Gambling on horses is scarcely limited to the track. The nature of the betting is better disguised in barns and show rings than at pari-mutuel windows, yet the stakes are higher, and the bettors are often no less addicted than the marks who wager their rent money on a tout’s shaky tip.
Just getting into the breeding game costs tens of thousands of dollars. The ante to compete for the really big money is in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions.
The potential payoff, in producing horses for either racing or show, is the return from selling the breeding prospects of a winner, as other gamblers speculate that the offspring will be winners too.
Most gamblers lose, most of the time
Inevitably, most lose, most of the time. No gambler can win big if others don’t lose.
The lure of gambling is the hope of getting rich quick, without having to work for it, by collecting what others have earned yet unwisely risked. But few gamblers are ever lucky enough to get rich, or so much as break even. They plunge into debt instead. Then they gamble ever more recklessly, struggling to recoup their losses.
As losses mount, so does the temptation to cheat: to resort to crime, sometimes directly against other humans, but more often against horses who have little or no idea how much rides upon their success or failure.
Murder & fraud
This was the background to the May 21, 1999 arrest of former show horse trainer Michael Earl McKinney, 41, at a motel in Katy, Texas. McKinney was to face charges filed in October 1998 that back in 1985 he conspired to murder his former business partner, John Guillory Jr., to collect more than $700,000 in false insurance claims.
“Between 1982 and 1985,” Edward Hegstrom of the Houston Chronicle reported, “McKinney and Guillory joined a broader scheme in which at least 17 horses were suffocated or shot to collect insurance.”
Former stable boy Robbie Bourque, 33, the alleged hit man for McKinney, was in October 1998 convicted of murder in the Guillory case.
After the murder, both McKinney and Bourque were convicted of mail fraud in connection with the horse killings and former Hardin County district attorney R.F. Horka reportedly lost his job, had his law license suspended, and drew federal probation for perjuring himself in order to free another member of the ring from prison.
Helen V. Brach
The Guillory murder and associated fraud added up to the biggest horse-related crime case to break since 1994, when a probe of the 1977 disappearance of animal welfare patron Helen V. Brach led to the eventual conviction of her alleged killer, Richard Bailey, who was also convicted as one of the leaders of a ring who killed horses for insurance money. At least 25 other people were convicted for horse-related arsons and fraud.
The probe also achieved the conviction of former stable owner Kenneth Hansen, for allegedly murdering three Chicago boys in 1954, after sexually assaulting one of them.
James A. Blottiaux, 54, of Chicago, is still facing murder charges for allegedly killing Cheryl Ann Rude, 22, with a car bomb in 1963, as hit man for one of the suspected founders of the ring, Silas Jayne, who died in 1987.
Rude was an accidental victim. Silas Jayne allegedly hired Blottiaux to kill his brother, George Jayne, and was convicted of conspiring to murder George Jayne after the latter was killed in 1971.
But the Guillory murder case, big as it seems, is attracting much less attention than another Houston race horse-related crime case breaking during 1998 and 1999: a series of trials hinging on just what happened to Alydar, the runner-up in all three legs of the 1978 Triple Crown series.
Insured for $36.6 million by Calumet Farm, Alydar was found in his stall with a broken right rear leg on the night of November 13, 1990. He was euthanized two days later. Lloyd’s of London paid off the claim. Calumet Farm, owing $120 million, paid $20 million immediately to First City Bancorporation, a now defunct Houston bank that had threatened foreclosure. Calumet Farm owed First City $50 million.
The Alydar death came under investigation as result of a probe into the affairs of the bank. In November 1998, former Calumet Farm groom Alton Stone, 39, drew five months in prison and five months of home confinement for lying to a federal grand jury about his activities and whereabouts during the night Alydar was injured.
Stone was to have been on duty as night watch, filling in for regular night watch Harold Kipp.
The Stone trial was preliminary to indictments brought in March 1999 against ex-Calumet Farm president John T. Lundy and chief financial officer Gary Matthews, for allegedly conspiring to pay a $1.1 million bribe to an unidentified First City director in order to obtain approval to receive the loans. Lundy and Matthews face five criminal counts each.
It was all part of trying to fix the bets. Insurance is another form of gambling. The insurance system usually works because both the insurer and the insured seek the continued well-being of the persons, animals, or objects covered by the policy.
The system fails horses, however, when the insurees are insured for more than their market value, as can easily happen when the market value is as heavily speculative as the horse racing industry.
An untried young horse of noted bloodlines may fetch quite a fancy price. A few poor racing or exhibition performances later, potential buyers may feel they know the limitations of the horse, whose value may plunge to the horse meat level even though he or she is only weeks or months older, healthy, and still short of maturity.
That’s when the desperate horse speculator may gamble on fixing a race, cheating at a show, or killing a horse.
Horses on crack
Scarcely a month goes by without a horse doping scandal breaking somewhere.
In October 1998, for instance, the Ontario Racing Commission discovered that eight thoroughbreds had been surreptitiously sedated at Woodbine Race Track, near Toronto. The apparent motive was to sabotage their trainer, Mark Casse.
In November 1998, West Virginia racing officials found cocaine in the bloodstream of a horse named Azellia, who had just won a $13,200 purse at the Mountaineer Race Track in Chester. Azellia s owner/trainer, John Fisichello, was suspended for a year and stripped of his winnings.
In December 1998, the Standardbred Investigation Society of the U.S. Trotting Association looked into allegations that two horses were illegally drugged during the recently concluded Atlantic Sire Stakes racing season.
January 1999 brought the arrests of British jockeys Ray Cochrane and Graham Bradley, along with former trainer Charlie Brooks, for alleged drugging the latest of 13 arrests, total, in a probe begun in early 1997.
Hong Kong race fixing
The most cases, however, have cracked in Hong Kong. Thirteen people including 11 current and former jockeys were arrested in December 1998 for allegedly participating in a $2 million race-fixing scheme said to have begun in 1996.
Rattled, the Hong Kong Jockey Club in March 1999 hired a new director of security: Timothy McNally, 51, reportedly the second highest-ranking FBI official stationed in California.
In April 1999, Hong Kong Jockey Club staff found two top horses had been drugged, one apparently to enhance and the other to hinder performance. In May 1999, Hong Kong trainer Patrick Biancone said he had been sabotaged after his horse Rickfield tested positive for illegal presence of steroids.
Slowing horses by shoving sponges up their nostrils is another common race-fixing tactic, surfacing in at least 12 races at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, during 1996 and 1997. In mid-1997 Churchill Downs officials began routinely checking horses’ nostrils.
Three-time convicted felon William Michael McCandless, 52, was indicted for the spongings by a federal grand jury in May 1998.
Reputedly a serious gambler, McCandless was grandson of a race horse trainer, nephew of a jockey, and also nephew of a race horse owner. He drew a four-year prison term in 1977 for allegedly stealing a mare named Fanfreluche, who was carrying a foal by the Triple Crown winner Secretariat; was later convicted of transporting stolen tractors across state lines; and was convicted in 1980 of cultivating marijuana.
Stress vs. abuse
Deliberate abuse is far from the only occupational hazard for competition horses. About 4% of all U.S. race horses are injured badly enough each season to miss a scheduled start. The British injury rate is higher because British racing usually includes jumps.
Race horses are often injured by uneven or unusually hard track surfaces, a problem resulting mainly from weather shifts. Lung bleeds are even more common, afflicting 50% of all race horses, according to a recent study by Bob Schroter and David Marlin, of the British-based Animal Health Trust. They studied the health records of 2,000 race horses in all.
The older the horse, they found, the more the likelihood of bleeding: 80% of four-year-olds suffered from it sometimes. The chief cause of lung bleeding, Schroter and Martin reported, is shock from the impact of front hooves striking the ground.
Born to run
But, despite some fatalities, most horses survive injuries that have a natural analog.
Horses are literally born to run.
Horses gallop easily over quite rough terrain in the wild, often for much longer than conventional racing distances, and sometimes run to exhaustion in attempting to escape predators, lightning, or fire.
Horses endure and mostly recover from heat, drought, and excessive humidity, if able to cool off, drink, and rest.
The major humane issue associated with horse competitions have less to do with the competition itself than with the gambling aspect, which encourages use of abusive tactics.
The two most ubiquitous abuses of competition horses don’t even involve cheating. One is whipping a race horse down the home stretch, in front of the frantic bettors.
Top jockeys will often say, usually in private but sometimes on the record, that they rarely actually touch their mounts with the whips, and don’t believe whipping beyond a tap to tell a horse to sprint, or to correct misbehavior, should even be practiced.
Whipping flat-out isn’t necessary, they say, and they add, if they did flog a mount who wasn’t accustomed to the beating, the horse might swerve away, causing a potentially lethal pile-up.
Even those jockeys make a show of whipping, however, because bettors demand it. If a jockey doesn’t whip a horse, many bettors believe, he is holding back, fixing the race, and those who bet on that horse are being cheated.
Stronger action on whipping
The New York State Racing and Wagering Board tightened rules against excessive whipping in March 1998, but stronger action has come abroad.
The Royal SPCA of Great Britain built momentum against whipping in August 1998 by threatening to prosecute jockeys who land frequent hard whip strokes for criminal cruelty.
Three weeks later the British Jockey Club suspended the first, second, and third finishers in the Juddmonte International States race at York for excessive whipping, among them 11-time national champion Pat Eddery, and 1997 national champion Kieren Fallon.
Then, in November 1998, the Jockey Club suspended Tony McCoy for two weeks. McCoy, 24, had just ridden a record 253 winners in one year, but had incurred five whipping infractions in his total of more than 700 rides. The suspension cost McCoy about £10,000.
Jockey sent to a shrink
Jockey Club director of regulation Malcom Wallace acknowledged that, “It is a question of changing the cultural attitude that hitting a horse means it wins.”
Said McCoy of his suspension, and a requirement that he take a refresher course on whip use from the British Racing School, “If it helps, I’m willing.”
New Zealand rules bar jockeys from hitting a horse more than six times consecutively in mid-race.
After drawing 105 days on suspension, for flogging horses in mid-race 19 and 27 times, respectively, New Zealand jockey Jason Warrington, 25, scored a recent off-track first by agreeing to seek help from a sports psychologist.
Whipping, however, is usually a matter of only transient moment to horses. Overbreeding is life-and-death. Fifty years ago, U.S. thoroughbred breeders produced only about 6,000 prospective racing foals per season. Now they produce about 45,000. Just 33,000 are eventually registered to race. Approximately 80,000-90,000 thoroughbreds, of all ages, will race in any given year.
Successful horses will normally race from three to five years. The losers, trained to the saddle, could be good riding horses for ten to 20 years. But continual oversupply insures that most, instead, are auctioned as horse meat and for rendering, often at only two to four years of age.
The oversupply exists because the speculative nature of horse breeding encourages breeders and trainers to give up early on any horse without quick potential, and instead try a different foal.
Similar economics pertain to breeding show horses and polo ponies.
Betting on change bucks the odds
So long as gambling promises the biggest profits, betting on change may buck the odds.
California, for instance, banned selling horses to slaughter by referendum in November 1998. The ban reduced the number of horses auctioned within California by about two-thirds.
But early reports indicate little if any change in the modus operandi of the racing industry. Losing race horses are sold chiefly to cut losses, not in expectation of making money, and if that requires trucking a horse to another state for auction, such is easily done. If trucking costs too much relative to the slaughter price, the horses could just be killed where they are.
Aware that growing concern about the fate of ex-race horses is a public relations problem, the horse racing industry is following the decade-old example of the greyhound industry in assisting and promoting selected nonprofit animal retirement and adoption programs whose directors are not outspokenly critical of racing per se. About $400,000 will be donated by horse race tracks to such programs in 1999. Yet that is just a fraction of the cost of the programs.
The industry has also enlisted state support in many states where horse racing and breeding are most influential. Kentucky, for instance, in April 1999 donated 100 acres of land valued at $1 million to the New Jersey-based Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. The site will shelter 65-70 ex-race horses, under care of about 50 minimum security inmates from the nearby Blackburn Correctional Complex.
The Thoroughbred Racing Foundation already runs retirement farms staffed by the Wallkill Correctional Facility in New York and the Charles Hickey School for Boys in Maryland, and is building a similar farm at the Marion County Correctional Facility in Ocala, Florida.
(The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation weathered allegations of neglect of horses in 2011-2013. The California Equine Retirement Foundation had similar issues in 2019. See California Equine Retirement Foundation runs into deep muck.)
Sanctuaries are not enough
As with greyhound racing, all the retirement and adoption programs combined, however, cannot handle more than a small part of the volume of culled animals. Greyhound rescuers compete for placements with more than 5,000 animal shelters and 750 private breed rescue societies who also have dogs needing homes.
Race horse rescuers, and to a lesser extent show horse and polo pony rescuers, compete with each other, with the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse adoption program, and with would-be rescuers who recently have been trying to save foals bred in connection with the production of pregnant mare’s urine, the source of the estrogen drug Premarin.
Ultimately, the best hope for former competition horses, as for former racing dogs, will be the contraction of the industry to the point that speculative breeding ends because the big money just isn’t there any more.
That could happen. The audience for both horse racing and greyhound racing is aging. Smaller tracks have closed or are in financial trouble. Horse track attendance dropped from 74.7 million in 1980 to 38.9 million in 1997, while the TV ratings share for the Kentucky Derby has fallen to 20%, from 60% in 1960.
But the real bottom line for horse racing is the betting handle. The good news is that it fell from $19 billion in 1982 to $15 billion in 1996, and is apparently still falling.
The bad news is that horse racing is still 10 times as big in dollar volume as U.S. retail fur sales, and the fur industry is still operating, in inflation-adjusted dollars, at about two-thirds of the level of 1990; half of peak.
An abusive industry shrinks only so much by losing the people who just were unaware of the cruelty it entails. The hard core––the people who just don’t care––tend to diminish only by slow attrition, and all the while the people who care a lot about preventing suffering must maintain awareness campaigning, so that such an industry cannot make a comeback.